Mideast Monitoring Group Discusses Cross-Border Tensions

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A five-nation monitoring committee is meeting on Friday to discuss the recent escalation in fighting between Israel and its Hizballah enemies in south Lebanon.

In the past two weeks, Israeli forces have bombed Hizballah bases and Lebanese infrastructure targets, reacting to the deadly attacks on six Israeli and four South Lebanese Army soldiers.

The United States, France, Syria, Lebanon and Israel are members of a committee set up to monitor violations of a 1996 U.S.-brokered agreement on rules of engagement in southern Lebanon.

The body is gathering in the Lebanese town of Nakura on the Mediterranean coast. It will also be the first face-to-face meeting between Israel and Syria since bi-lateral negotiations between them stalled in mid-January.

It remains unclear if the meeting will provide the impetus to revive the faltering talks.

Washington is pushing for a resumption in Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which the administration hopes will lead not only to a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, but also between Israel and Lebanon.

Syria, which has more than 30,000 troops in Lebanon, also dictates its policy, particularly where Israel is concerned. In 1983, Israel and Lebanon signed a peace treaty, but Syria refused to allow the Lebanese parliament to ratify it.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. had "made clear to all the sides what's at stake" and that it still believed "the sides can move forward, make the tough decisions, and reach an overall agreement.

"President Clinton is deeply convinced that all the leaders involved believe that peacemaking serves their interests," Lockhart said. "That's what makes us convinced that this process is worthwhile and that we have to stick with it."

But Israeli analysts and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who blame President Hafez Assad for the escalation in Lebanon, are questioning the Syrians' sincerity.

Syria facilitates the movement of weapons and supplies from Iran to Hizballah, the Lebanon-based Islamist group involved in the war against Israel and the SLA.

Bilateral negotiations were suspended after just two rounds over a Syrian demand that Israel provide a written agreement - before talks continued - to relinquish the entire Golan Heights, captured by Israel during a 1967 war and subsequently annexed.

Israel has agreed in principle to withdraw from the strategic plateau but wants security, water, and relationship guarantees in place before making that commitment.

Israel radio Friday morning cited "diplomatic sources" as saying talks would resume soon. However, it said, Barak did not share that assessment.

Prof. Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, pointed out that the former prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, had offered to return the Golan Heights.

Inbar told CNSNews.com Assad was either using the fighting in Lebanon as a negotiating tactic to pressure Israel, or he was not really interested in talks and was "just bleeding Israel."

Likud parliamentarian Yuval Steinitz agrees that Assad was not really interested in a deal with Israel, unless it provided "extras" from the U.S. He says he doubts Assad really cares about getting the Golan Heights back.

Steinitz told a press briefing Syria had given Israel many hints to that effect: Assad refused himself to attend talks with Israel; when his foreign minister went to the summit he wouldn't talk to Barak; he demanded Israel concede territory beyond the international border prior to negotiations; the Syrian press launched a severe anti-Semitic attack on Israel; and finally Syria allowed the escalation in Hizballah activity.

If talks were resumed, Steinitz told CNSNews.com, there was a "good chance that [the Syrians] will look for another reason to interrupt the negotiations."

At the briefing, Steinitz recalled meeting an American diplomat in Washington who had been involved in a delegation that met with Assad in the early 1990s.

Speaking through a translator, the delegation had promised Assad that if he would go along with the peace process, they would ensure he got the Golan Heights back.

In reply, Assad asked what he would get in return for the deal. Thinking there had been a misunderstanding, they explained through the translator that they weren't asking the Syrian dictator to give up anything.

He replied that he understood the first time and he wanted to know what would make the deal worth his while.

"He's more interested in the 'extras,' " Steinitz said.

Israeli military experts have said the next few days will test Assad's intentions, and they will be watching to see whether or not he reins in Hizballah.